I’D LIKE TO wish all our residents a ‘Happy New Year’ for the last time in my capacity as Oldham Council Leader.
Later this month I’ll be stepping down to focus on my new role as the MP for Oldham West and Royton, but this does not mean I am moving on.
Instead I see this as ‘stepping up’ to represent the borough in a different way – championing your interests at Westminster, where we need a strong voice now more than ever.
I’ve also agreed to take on a new ambassadorial role to continue giving leadership on the regeneration programme here which will be entering a very exciting period in 2016.
We’ve had plenty of milestones in the last year with the opening of new Leisure Centres in Oldham and Royton, the North Stand at Oldham Athletic, FCHO’s new headquarters on Union Street, plus the blossoming of new businesses and creative ventures in the Independent Quarter, and much more.
In the coming months you’ll continue to see even further progress on projects that are there to ensure Oldham – and above all, its people – can prosper.
The developments I just mentioned are important parts of our ‘invest to grow’ programme of physical regeneration, but none are more symbolic of our aspirations than the Old Town Hall.
This is our flagship scheme and the sense of anticipation is growing with every new steel strut, column and window.
When work to rejuvenate this venue is complete, when families are queuing to end a decade-long wait for cinema tickets, when doors open at its six new restaurants, and when the first cappuccinos are frothed for visitors to the adjacent Parliament Square, it will be a hugely-significant moment for Oldham.
This is a development to put the town centre back on the map: to reawaken this grand old building and its surrounds and restore it to its rightful place as a symbol of civic pride.
That will be a powerful moment in 2016, but I know it really only marks the end of the beginning of the longer journey that lies ahead.
Much remains to be done because we’re still facing a range of challenges to our future prosperity and wellbeing.
In 2015 at Oldham Council we finalised the process of finding £35m in cuts for our 2015/6 budget and then almost immediately set about finding a further £18m of savings for 2016/7. We know these cuts are having a real impact on residents and services – and our partners – despite our determination to continue delivering and supporting people.
The cuts – more than £200 million since 2010 – have been accompanied by rising demand for help from our most vulnerable residents and will be further compounded by new Government plans to remove central funding that will effectively leave towns like ours to ‘sink or swim’ on our own resources.
That’s why so much hard work has already being going on in key projects that aren’t about bricks and mortar, but about social regeneration.
When I say that I’m thinking of schemes like Get Oldham Working, which beat its original target to create 2,015 jobs, apprenticeship and traineeships with nine months to spare this year.
I’m also thinking about the introduction of the Living Wage for council staff, the new Fair Employment Charter, which is designed to tackle issues like ‘zero hour’ contracts, and our work to put social value – ensuring contractors support our local economy – at the heart of every pound we spend.
Another huge challenge is providing people with homes and good places to live. This year we began our licensing scheme for private landlords to stamp out the letting of poor quality accommodation, and continued to fight fuel poverty through projects like Warm Homes Oldham, from which around 2,000 homes have benefited.
Construction has also begun on new homes at sites across the borough and we’ve introduced a Green Dividend scheme to help fund tree planting and other projects to make neighbourhoods better places to live.
Crucially, the focus will turn to our future – young people and education – later this month when the Oldham Education and Skills Commission (OESC) delivers its landmark report.
We’re working hard to deliver better facilities like the new Hollinwood Academy, Saddleworth School and the new three form entry primary school currently under construction on the former Grange site, but education isn’t just about an inspiring learning environment: it’s about every child getting the best chance to fulfil their potential.
We know we can – and must – do better here because successful schools and training underpins all our ambitions to become a place where people want to live and work.
The new OESC report will clearly set out the challenge that lies ahead: how to ensure our young people are school ready, work ready and life ready and we all have a part to play in that.
Finally, I give you my word that as an MP I will be retaining as close an interest as ever in our progress on education and many other areas – including to ensure that we benefit fairly from devolution to Greater Manchester.
I’m determined to continue to help drive things forward in our borough and make sure that we continue to innovate and change so we can deliver for tomorrow’s generation.
Councillor Jim McMahon OBE
Leader of Oldham Council
MP for Oldham West and Royton